[BANGKOK] Ousted Thai prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra launched a defiant defence on Friday at the first hearing of impeachment proceedings that could see her banned from politics for five years and deepen the country's bitter divisions.
Ms Yingluck, Thailand's first female premier and the sister of self-exiled former leader Thaksin Shinawatra, was dumped from office by a controversial court ruling shortly before the army seized power in a coup on May 22.
She faces impeachment by the military-stacked National Legislative Assembly over her administration's loss-making rice subsidy programme which - while popular among her rural power base - cost billions of dollars and was a driving force behind protests that toppled her government.
Analysts say the impeachment move is the latest attempt by Thailand's royalist elite to neuter the political influence of the Shinawatras, whose parties have won every election since 2001.
A guilty verdict from the assembly carries an automatic five-year ban from politics, but could also galvanise her family's 'Red Shirt' supporters to protest after months of silence under martial law.
Ms Yingluck, dressed in a black suit and pink shirt, arrived at the hearing flanked by security and a handful of her party members.
"I ran the government with honesty and in accordance with all laws," she told the assembly, rejecting the allegation of dereliction of duty by the nation's anti-graft body that resulted in the impeachment bid.
"The rice pledging scheme... aimed to address the livelihood of rice farmers, their debts and falling rice prices," she said, describing it as part of the "social contract" which she claimed helped 1.8 million rice farmers.
She ended a detailed and impassioned defence by urging the assembly to "deliberate with virtue, without prejudice or a hidden political agenda".
A successful impeachment needs three-fifths of the 250-strong assembly to vote in favour. A verdict is expected by the end of January.
Prosecutors are also in the process of deciding whether Ms Yingluck should face a separate criminal case over the rice subsidy scheme.
Ms Yingluck's supporters say the proceedings and the criminal charges are part of a wider campaign to cripple the Shinawatra clan and disempower their voters, who are drawn mainly from the poor but populous northern part of the country.
But the move is not without risks. A vote to impeach Ms Yingluck could stir the Red Shirts to protest, ending months of relative calm since the army grabbed power and imposed martial law.
Thai politics expert Thitinan Pongsudhirak said the impeachment proceedings pose "a dilemma" for the junta and their supporters, who are desperate to land another body blow on the Shinawatras.
"On the one hand they (the junta) want to see her disqualified from Thai politics," said Mr Thitinan, who is director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University.
"But if they go all out against Yingluck - by pushing for a ban or criminal charges - they risk aggravating Thailand's political conflict by stirring up the pro-Thaksin camp."